The sun was blood red over the Mississippi. It gushed upon the horizon, purple and orange. A cold breeze from the north weaved its way through the husks of corn drying dead on spindly stalks. Alternating rows of crops and grass repeated ad infinitum across the hills.
I was somewhere in Wisconsin.
We took a left on Great River Road. We passed Sunset Lanes, a bowling alley that looked like small airplane hanger, the parking lot packed with American trucks. A brown barn with antique gas pumps out front advertised itself as a flea market. Above a dingy, nondescript repair shop stood a water tower with the town’s name, “Dickeyville”, emblazoned on it in thick, black letters.
Old homes and squat motels lined Main Street. Here was a gas station, there a diner. We turned the corner, the sun low, the shadows long. Two kids rode their bikes up the empty, cracked sidewalk. A steeple poked into view, the tiled, angular spire piercing the dark blue sky with startling ferocity.
Something unusual caught my eye. A grotto, a cave, next to the church. A man-made stone building bedecked with bits of seashell, shards of tea cups, a petrified tree trunk, and all bound together with poured cement. It leaped forth from the ground in a profusion of organic shapes, as if it might slither into the ether at any given moment.
The handicraft of Father Mathias Wernerus, an immigrant, it’s part ode to religion, part ode to patriotism. He spent roughly a half-decade of his life affixing the stones, inspired almost undoubtedly by Father Paul Dobberstein’s famous grotto in West Bend, Iowa. There’s a shrine to Jesus. A shrine to Mary. A shrine to Christopher Columbus. His fervor knew no bounds. Stone rope unites Wernerus’ creations, entreating you to stroll through his imagination.
Warnerus’ final vision is smaller in scale than Dobberstein’s work, but no less impassioned. It’s the masterwork of an artistic savant, bursting with childlike enthusiasm. Mary is in in the main grotto behind glass, the entryway to her shine resembling the open maw of a primordial monster.
You can’t help but ask: why? Why build such a monument in an out of the way town in American’s heartland? Wernerus once believed his grotto was destined to be a great tourist attraction. But did he build it in search of glory? Or a feeling more divine?
Dobberstein was inspired to construct his grotto after a bout with pneumonia. Wernerus, strangely enough, died of pneumonia in 1931.
He’s gone, but because of his grotto, never forgotten in Dickeyville, Wisconsin.